Safe House

Safe House

by Jo Jakeman

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Overview

She's paid the price for giving her ex a false alibi, and now she's moved to a seaside village to escape her past—but more than her lie follows her there in this chilling and twisty psychological thriller from the author of the acclaimed The Exes' Revenge.

One day, a woman turns up in a remote coastal village. She's bought a crumbling, long-vacant cottage and calls herself Charlie Miller. Charlie keeps to herself, reluctant to integrate with the locals. If they ever find out who she really is, and what she's done, she'll lose what little she has left.

Charlie served two years in prison for providing a false alibi for a murderer. It was the mistake of a woman in love, a woman who couldn't believe her boyfriend was guilty—or lying to her. All she desperately wants now is a fresh start.

As Charlie slowly lets down her guard and becomes friendly with her neighbors, she can't shake the feeling that someone is watching her, someone who knows what she did. When one of her new friends suddenly disappears, Charlie's worst fears are confirmed. She must confront her past head-on, but as she knows all too well, everything is far more dangerous than how it appears.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984802095
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/10/2020
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 472,713
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jo Jakeman was the winner of the Friday Night Live competition at the York Festival of Writing in 2016. Born in Cyprus, she worked for many years in London before moving to the countryside with her husband and twin boys. The Exes' Revenge was her first novel.

Read an Excerpt

1

Charlie Miller



Friday, October 5, 2018



Charlie's new life began today. Luckily, she never much cared for the old one.



With one hand on the steering wheel, and an eye on the road, she checked her reflection in the rearview mirror and barely recognized herself. The darker hair still took her by surprise. The tips were almost ginger where "chocolate brown" supermarket dye had fought the blond, and lost.



She looked back to the empty lane that was narrower than it had any right to be and still dark with overnight rain. Puddles captured sections of blue sky, as if it had fallen from the heavens. She had missed the tangy smell of a world washed clean by rain. It was the scent of new beginnings.



Fear and excitement battled it out for supremacy in her stomach. The cautious part of her-which was both sizable and used to getting its own way-thought about turning the car around, going back the way she came, but there was nothing waiting for her there. Her old life didn't exist anymore.



Charlie's new life could be so, well, it could be so safe.



Her mum used to accuse her of "playing it safe," as if safe was something to be avoided. She never could understand why Charlie didn't apply for a better job-but who would want the extra responsibility and the paperwork? And, of course, she never took risks. What kind of fool would willingly expose themselves to danger? Her mum said that Charlie was stuck in her ways and Charlie supposed she had a point-until the day before yesterday she'd the same hairstyle she'd had since she was twelve.



Safe. Yes, Charlie played it safe on a semiprofessional level. And until two years ago she thought she was doing a fine job of it.



The road was parallel to a river that dipped toward the glimmering sea in the distance. She thought back to family holidays where they'd spend what felt like an eternity in the car before she'd shout from behind Mother's headrest, "I can see the sea!" as if being the first to spot it deserved a prize. She didn't have a family anymore, and no one to share a car journey with. Funny how much could change in such a short space of time.



The Buttery was waiting for Charlie on the other side of the river. The name made her think of thick stone walls and homey fires. Old-world charm and heavy wooden doors. If she couldn't get a moat and a drawbridge, a cottage at the crumbling edge of Cornwall was the next best thing to keep the world at bay.



The automated female voice coming from her phone told her, "Take the first turning on the left," but it was only a twist in the road that dipped beneath a few inches of water and popped up again on the other side. She half expected to be washed downstream in an elaborate game of Poohsticks. As she inched toward the sign for Penderrion the phone told her she was "arriving at destination."



The houses here were trim and expensive. Set back from the lane, they had lawns that would be perfect for warm evening G&Ts and a game of croquet. They represented a life that Charlie would never be part of.



She slowed the car as the road began to peter out. The neat lawns melted away and were replaced by a bank of trees and unruly hedges. She glanced in her rearview mirror. Had she missed the house? Gone too far? But then she saw the sold at auction sign poking from beneath a huddle of trees that bowed and bobbed in the breeze. Beyond it, she turned down an overgrown track that was dense with wizened brambles-nature's barbed wire-telling her to keep out. As she pushed the car forward, a rabbit lurched from the undergrowth and kicked its heels at her to lead the way.



Charlie brought the car to a halt behind the cottage. She turned off the engine and pulled herself out of the car. Hands on the base of her back, she stretched and groaned. Though she'd seen pictures, this was the first time she'd seen The Buttery with her own eyes. Phrases like "investment opportunity" and "in need of modernization" were euphemisms that should have told her everything she'd needed to know, but still she'd set her expectations too high.



"You've got to be joking," she said, though her words were tugged from her mouth and blown to the top of the trees like discarded litter before they could reach her ears.



The roof bowed like a washing line of bedsheets, and the kitchen window was missing its glass. A lot of work was needed to turn this house into a home, but Charlie had come prepared.



She looked at the upstairs window, where a limp curtain fluttered and fell. Did she see, or just imagine, a figure in the shadows? She took a slow step backward.



The curtains swayed again, but there was no one there. They were curled by the tender caress of the wind. Nothing else. She unclenched her hands, which she didn't realize were in tight fists by her sides.



"Idiot," she muttered.



There was no danger here. There couldn't be, because no one knew where she was. This was her fresh start.



She could be anyone in the world-anyone she wanted-except Steffi.



If she wanted to stay safe, she needed to make sure everyone forgot that Steffi Finn had ever existed.



2



Steffi Finn



Thursday, December 28, 2017



Day 37 of sentence



Cold out," said prison officer Manning. "Didn't think my car was going to start this morning."



Though Steffi appreciated the attempt at normal conversation, she found it difficult to sympathize with anyone who was able to sleep in their own bed, drink tea out of their own mug, and drive their own car to work.



"Any snow yet, miss?" she asked.



"Some up in the Peaks," Manning said. "They've shut the Snake Pass and the Cat and Fiddle road again."



Steffi loved the sound of places she'd never seen. She tucked the words away for later when she'd be alone and she could let the roads take her mind out of here.



HMP Hillstone was generally considered to be less harsh than some of the other prisons she could have been sent to. With seven wings and two hundred inmates, there was never a quiet moment, and Steffi looked forward to being locked back in her cell, which, for now, she didn't have to share with anyone else.



Steffi looked back to the newspaper on the table. As long as she kept her eyes down and folded herself small enough that she was almost invisible, the prison officers and the other inmates left her alone. She was no fun if she didn't fight back.



This period between Christmas and New Year fell flat whether you were locked up or not. The prison had made ineffective attempts to provide some Christmas cheer. There'd been roast turkey and carols, and the women had been allowed to watch The Polar Express in the afternoon lull. There were paper-chain decorations made by the inmates. Some of the women seemed excited, happy even. Steffi supposed that, for some of them, this was better than the alternative.



Steffi's only acknowledgment of the day came in a Christmas phone call to her mum and dad, but she wished she hadn't bothered. It was too painful for all of them. They couldn't bring themselves to sit around opening gifts when their daughter was in prison, and Steffi couldn't bring herself to pretend that she was anything but miserable.



It could be worse. There was more than one way to lose a daughter. For the parents of Katy Foster and Anna Atkins, a daughter in prison was a luxury. They'd be visiting gravesides and setting an empty place at the dinner table. Steffi wondered whether her parents ever wished that she was dead. Instead of shunning them, the neighbors would give them extra hugs and invites for mulled wine and mince pies.



Once a week the inmates were allowed to visit the prison library. It was the time Steffi looked forward to the most. It wasn't just the uniformity of the straight spines, or the neatness of the shelves, that mesmerized her like a moth to a light-it was the newspapers. They were her link to the outside, proof that the world hadn't stopped as soon as she was sentenced. She sat and read each one cover to cover, no matter how big or small the story.



The front pages showed chaos on the roads and queues for the post-Christmas sales. She wondered whether she'd be less materialistic when she got out, or more. She'd appreciate the value of the simple pleasures, sure, but she also wanted to be able to buy a new lamp, a pair of pajamas, or a bar of chocolate whenever she wanted.



The papers didn't mention Steffi anymore. There was part of her that found the omission disappointing. Hurtful even. She wanted them to print the truth about her, but she knew that'd never happen. Instead she read that women in party dresses were "flaunting their curves." Saw that the picture to accompany a story about a woman sexually assaulted showed her posing in a bikini on holiday and the associated story detailed what she'd been drinking that night.



Until she'd become a victim of the tabloid press, Steffi hadn't noticed the language they used and how it had seeped into her consciousness. If it hadn't been for the differing ways in which she and Lee had been portrayed by the media, she might never have noticed.



Steffi wondered what Lee's prison was like. Was it bigger, or louder? Did he have a better gym, better food, or better books in the library? Did he get extra perks for serving a double life sentence? She still thought of him every day. It was difficult not to. She was sure that he'd be thinking of her too. Even if his appeal was successful, Lee Fisher would remain in prison for many more years yet. How long could he hold a grudge for? She was willing to bet it was longer than any number of life sentences. The Lee she used to love would have forgiven her in a heartbeat, but the real Lee-the one he'd kept hidden-was capable of unspeakable acts of cruelty.



She flicked through the paper. Every time Steffi read that "a reliable source said . . ." or "a source close to the actress confirmed . . ." she scoffed out loud. She'd had plenty of those when her case went to court. She still had no idea whether they were real or completely made up by the journalists. Were they allowed to do that? She'd accused Conor of talking to the papers. They'd been best friends since school, dated for a while, and then his legal firm agreed to represent her. Now they were arranging for the sale of the home that she would never set foot in again. She wished she didn't have to rely on him so much. In an ideal world she wouldn't rely on anyone.



He'd looked sheepish when Steffi asked if his girlfriend-God, what was her name?-was leaking information to the press. Conor had been seeing the girlfriend for eighteen months, but Steffi hadn't met her. Conor said she was an actress, though he never mentioned her actually starring in anything. Lee had met the girlfriend-no, seriously, what was her name?-at their friend Max's birthday party. He went to great lengths to describe how fascinating she was, how beautiful, amusing, so slim and tall. "Could have been a model," he'd said. "And she was so attentive."



Each one of these compliments felt like it was a direct insult to Steffi. And maybe she was just the tiniest bit jealous that this woman had shown such interest in Lee. Wasn't Conor enough for her? Of course, with the benefit of hindsight she wished that Lee had eloped with the actress on the spot. It could have saved Steffi a lot of trouble.



Steffi had never liked parties and Lee didn't approve of alcohol. There was nothing he hated more than a drunk woman. Steffi had been a social drinker when they'd met, but Lee had asked her to give up alcohol and, in turn, he said he'd give up smoking for her. It had been a deal she'd been happy to make. She'd thought that Lee was perfect in every way except for the smoking. And then she discovered that smoking hadn't been his worst habit after all.



Lee had been remanded in prison following his arrest. Steffi used to think that he was the lucky one-at least he hadn't had to live a half-life in the real world, like she had. He wasn't spat on and intimidated. But then he ended up in hospital with a fractured jaw. It turned out prison wasn't the safe haven Steffi thought it was.



Her solicitor-not Conor, but one of his colleagues-was the one who advised her to accept her sentence quietly. In the grand scheme of things, ten months was little more than the blink of an eye, he'd said. But that was easy for him to say. She bit her lip. It wasn't that difficult to do; she'd always been quiet. She'd quietly stood by as Lee Fisher lied to her. She'd spoken softly behind closed doors and drawn curtains but remained tight-lipped in the face of questions from journalists when Lee had tried to pin the blame on her. She'd declined to give an interview in response to their claims that she knew more about the murders than she was letting on. She'd let the lawyers, the papers, and the angry mob say what they liked about her. Steffi had been confident that the truth would come out at the trial if she bided her time and waited to clear her name. Patience. An underrated virtue.



By the time she was in the dock, she'd lost her voice completely.



So far Steffi hadn't had any visitors in prison. Her mum was sick again, and Steffi had never had much to say to her dad even before she was arrested. Conor had offered to come and see her, but she didn't want him to see her like this. If she saw him now, she would go to pieces. She used to have friends, didn't she? But prisons didn't feature in their lives, so it was easier for them to forget Steffi existed.



But just in case she worried that no one remembered who she was anymore, she still received plenty of letters. Vile letters. Hateful letters. She'd given up hoping to find a message of support among the noise. They believed the lies that Lee had told. They believed that she knew what Lee was doing and that she'd covered for him. Some even went as far as to say she drove him to it. It wasn't true.

Reading Group Guide

Readers Guide for SAFE HOUSEQuestions for Discussion

1. When Charlie is released from prison, she fears that people will think she hasn’t been adequately punished. Do you believe her fears are accurate? How do you think society reacts to ex-prisoners? Are we able to forgive crimes when the sentence has been served, or do we continue to judge people by their past?

2. Charlie chooses to move somewhere remote. Was this the right decision? Where would you go if you wanted to “disappear”?

3. How much of a role did the media play in turning the public against Charlie? How does the media portray women differently from men?

4. Charlie feels guilty for the death of Anna Atkins and Katy Foster. How much is she to blame?

5. Charlie always tries to see the best in people. Though that has caused her difficulties in the past (such as believing everything that Lee told her), how does this help her when she is settling in to Penderrion?

6. In what circumstances—if any—do you believe criminals deserve anonymity? Can you understand why some people would want to exact revenge once a person is released from prison? Can you think of any circumstances where you might want to take revenge on someone?

7. Charlie had never dreamed big—she always wanted to stay in the village she grew up in and didn’t want a promotion at work. If she hadn’t gone to prison, she might have stayed in Pinchdale. Can a positive spin be put on her negative experiences? How did it encourage her to grow? In what way did it improve her life?

8. Charlie’s relationship with her father was toxic. How do you think this might have paved the way for her relationship with Lee?

9. Did Lee get the ending that he deserved?

10. What’s next for Charlie? Can she hope to lead a “normal” life now? How will she be forever altered by her experiences?

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